My friend Joanna took us to Laos to celebrate her birthday. Twenty of us, six decades of her friends from all over the world, each speaking a different kind of English, all sharing the same travel bug, love of adventure and wicked sense of humor.
The first stop was The White Temple in Chiang Rai, an amazing photo opportunity. The style: ornate wedding cake. The cost: 40 Thai Baht. The effect: flabbergasting.
Everything here is over the top. Even the toilets.
Moving on. At the border, they wanted clean, unmarred dollars for the visa fee. To get them, wash them in the sink and stick them on the mirror to dry. Like fruit, they fall when they’re ready.
We changed money into KIP – one $US is about 33 Thai Baht or 8600 KIP. The national beer, BeerLao, is 15,000 KIP. My one massage was 150,000 KIP. I still don’t know if it was a bargain or a rip-off!
We embarked for our two-day cruise on the Mekong.
The Mighty Mekong runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand Cambodia, and Vietnam. It has a long, complicated and deadly history. It hides relics of the wars of the 1950s, when the French lost their Indochina colonies. Sunk barges loaded with explosives still endanger fishermen and create challenges for irrigation systems and bridge construction.
We embarked on a long boat cared for by a Laotian family. They live on the boat, catering to tourists. They fed us delicious Laotian food, kept us hydrated with cold BeerLao, and made sure we took our shoes off every time we got back on the boat.
All was good until my withdrawal kicked in. No Facebook. No email. No Instagram. No Internets. Worse than spelunking in Belize 15 years ago. Got the shakes.
We stopped to visit a few Laotian villages along the way. They’re mostly hill tribe nations, former nomads spread along Southeast Asia. Outsiders, they are deprived of citizens rights, including health care. They may be poor but they have a rich, distinct culture. Their home-distilled whiskey will peel paint, let alone your stomach lining.
We contributed to the community purse to help with education, clean water, and healthcare. We bought scarves. We scratched the pot-bellied pigs and the friendly puppies. We hoped they were there for companionship and pleasure, but probably not.
We stopped for the night at the beautiful, modern Pak Beng Lodge. Great food, French wine, Internet in the common area. We enjoyed a classic Laotian dance followed by a beautiful Laotian dinner and a quiet sleep, listening to the birds. There’s magic to sleeping under a mosquito net. Unless you have snoring neighbors.
The next morning I got up before dawn and started wandering in places I had no business being. Surprised? Of course not! It was a fruitful morning: I hogged the Internet, I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise and I made a new friend.
We enjoyed a Laotian breakfast with never-heard-of fruit juices and cream caramel. Like Vietnam, Laos used to be a French Colony. They share their love for bread and French cooking, and many more speak French than English.
The next cruise day we continued bonding, visited a couple of Buddha-rich caves, then landed at our own hotel, Maison Dalabua. Their UNESCO recognized organic gardens play on the symbiosis between water lilies and fish. Fish provide nourishment for the water lilies (they poop.) They eat dirt and the parasites. The waterlilies look pretty. Which would you rather be?
We explored Luang Prabang. We visited the temples. We bargained with the merchants. We tried new things. A market lady offered me something that looked like a worm. I couldn’t politely refuse, so I ate it. It was bland and creamy. I didn’t die.
We visited the butterfly park. We learned about the lifecycle of butterflies. Like people, they like alcohol from fermented fruit, mainly in the afternoon. They mature in sparkling chrysalids before their short life as a butterfly. Their life goal is to reproduce. Now you know why beauty is mandatory if you happen to be a butterfly.
We visited a bear sanctuary. The Asian Black Bears, also called Moon Bears, are an endangered species. Chinese medicine says their bile has healing properties. They get poached for their gallbladder. What a rotten fate! The bear sanctuary provides them with a safe place to live and play.
We hiked up the Kuang Si Falls, sweating up the steep muddy steps. We looped down on another trail. The stairs go through the edge of the falls, so we got to experience it really close and personal. Not only did we wear it, but we got to drink some. Tastes like water.
After three days in Luang Prabang, we headed to the ECC. No, not that one! The Elephant Conservation Canter in Sayaboury. A place in the jungle where a group of well-minded people interested in the welfare of elephants is trying to increase the dwindling population of Asian Elephants. Laos has about 800, half wild, half captive. Their numbers are plummeting due to poaching and to their diminishing, fragmented habitat.
Asian elephants have less ivory (if any), but it has become fashionable to wear elephant skin bracelets, elephant blood charms, and elephant bone anything. More so as they become rarer. Sadly, every part of the elephant is desirable and profitable.
It may surprise you, but elephants eat a lot. Every day. That’s not cheap. Since logging has dwindled, their main way to make a living is tourism. For many tours, they are the main attraction. Whether it’s riding them, watching them play soccer or buying their paintings, elephants are big money. Going where?
In the Sayabouri ECC and other conservation centers, the money is going towards elephant welfare and conservation. They are working on reintroducing them to the wild.
More about elephants and conservation in Joanna’s upcoming guest post. I hope. That will be a very special treat since she’s not only an elephant expert but an amazing photographer. Check out her website at JoannaMacLean.com. Puts me to shame.
After a week on the road, we returned to our Chiang Mai home, to our reliable Internet and to the friends we had neglected. And to work, of course. I have a book coming out in a month and somebody’s got to write it. Since no one offered, it looks like it’s me.
I hope you are well, old friends and new. I miss you all.
Hope to see you all soon, and keep in touch will you? Life’s too short to lose a friend!